an evolved response…

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Some attribute this axiom to Oscar Wilde. Others give Will Rogers the credit. We may never know who said it first but humans have been surviving on first impressions since at least 400,000 years ago (about the time Cousin Neanderthal thought they had a better idea about how to play the game). A rapidly made assessment of potential threats is one of the few instincts we have not modernly worked to repress.

Human-timeline

Also lost to history is whether the earliest true homo sapiens believed they were something greater than other animals. Our evolved conceit, however, suggests a test. If we’re special what proof have we?

The short list is: the opposable thumb, tool use, language, and the domestication of fire. Well, the front paw of the koala has two opposable digits so we’re beat there. Lower primates make and use tools; some species of birds and fish do as well. Strike two.

In May of this year, Gavagai AB – a language technology company based in Stockholm – announced that they plan to use AI to decipher the language of dolphins. Four years from now they may have more to say than, “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

That leaves the domestication of fire and, while still quite impressive is says more about the flame than it does of us. If it is what distinguishes us from beasts and we one day discover we’re not alone in that distinction – what then?

Without being pejorative of them most animals can be described as governed by stimulus and response. With this in mind it is our reasoning that sets us apart (if we must be apart). The first impression instinct can guard us from harm but it is not infallible.

I know my share of people who’ve seemed intelligent at first and later demonstrated themselves to be foolish or ignorant – sometimes dangerously so. Everyone does. Fortunately, I’ve met and learned to appreciate a number of folk who I did not initially think I would want to know.

More dramatically, about two weeks ago a moving car hit me. I had enough time to realize an impact was unavoidable and my last thought before it occurred was something akin to, “Redistribute the momentum.” After that I did not start thinking again until I was picking myself up off the road. I attribute walking away from the accident with nothing more than four lacerations and an abrasion or two to a conscious shift to unconscious impulse.

I’m all in and all in favor of instincts.

First impressions, when instinctually based, are a useful tool provided by evolution. Our capacity for reason utilized when we are safe is one of the faculties that can differentiate us from the Animal Kingdom. After the fact of any potential danger, rather than accepting the dictates of any instinct or stimulus/response we should consider what wisdom the experience may provide. If there was in fact no danger we should not adopt an oppositional view.

We always have a second chance to evaluate a first impression. If the impetus for a point of view is just a gut feeling and we go with that alone we haven’t participated in making that first impression at all. It’s out of our much-vaunted hands, thumbs included.

An instinct may give us reason to form an impression. Our rationale should decide what form it takes. Let other figure their own out but we each have the opportunity, in every moment, to make of our own first impressions whatever we need them to be – as tools. Domesticating them should be easier than making and tending a fire.


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reductio ad absurdum…

In 1996, long before Dennis Miller became a spokesman for conservative points of view, he released a book and associated CD – both titled “The Rants”. One track in particular discussed the tendency of people to demonize and seek to marginalize to the point of exclusion any opposed group. While this behavior is not the exclusive domain of any political persuasion, Miller did – 20 years ago – target the criticism on the Right.

The rant in question traced the tendency to its (il)logical result: a kind of societal attrition. If one faction did manage to fully suppress a perceived rival, and unsurprisingly real or imagined woes do not abate, a new source of such troubles would be designated for the same tactic. Shockingly civilization would find itself confronted with the same problem. Lather, rinse, repeat. Cleanse.

Miller concluded that eventually there’d be one person left and that hateful soul would attack his own reflection. Although his ideology flipped five years later, his observation remains true. Blaming “everything that’s wrong” on ethnic, religious, or other groups never can alleviate our shared difficulties. Scapegoats and straw men could be said to have a common ancestry in this regard. (This change happened roughly the same time Miller was picked as a new commentator on Monday Night Football (ABC) but was not the cause of it.)

The world-building for Astral has prompted some speculation about political structures, economic structures, and human nature. The last of these, it is probably fair to say, will likely never change; very little in all of recorded history unfortunately does not seem to support another prediction. In the story, there is a presidential campaign in progress. (I’d decided on this plot element many months before the Brexit decision or the recent election in the United States.) The partisan rivalry is no longer between conservative and progressive views. Capitalism has been replaced though not if favor of socialism.

But there is not a homogeneous philosophy. With apologies to Gene Roddenberry, an idyllic human government seems a bit further off than 350 years. (Human nature notwithstanding, I count myself among the group who share Mr. Roddenberry’s hope.) The population on a planet in orbit around α Fornacis has a wing that some would prefer had not been included among the colonists. I’ve been calling them Kels.

In their staunch desire to be recognized as part of the Fornacid culture the Kels have adopted an emblem that reflects but is not derived from Dennis Miller’s rant in question.

split

If two circles with equal diameter overlap based on adjacent, inscribed hexagons — follow me on this one — the resulting lens could be used represent a minority, which the Kels are. A circle with the same area as this lens would be about 5.77% of the original whole. After just 25 such schisms the “majority” would be less than 50% of its original size.

About two months ago, I presented here the flags of three other factions in Astral. The Kel flag – if and when they fly one in protest – might make use of this geometric symbolism.

kel-flag-xl-anim

Fractures in community do not follow a mathematical progression and, using this formula, such situations would never reach a hermit’s confrontation with a reflection. It does, however, help make the point that we are – now and in any future, under any flag – in this together.

— If we make that choice.


ceteris paribus…

Neither the future nor science fiction should frighten us. Both may raise questions; any lack of preparedness to face them is where fear should lie. Given that we pride ourselves on our intellect relative to every other form of life on the planet – what is there actually to fear?

One of humanity’s greatest powers, with due respect to the domestication of fire and the worthy and opposable thumb, is our capacity to craft definitions. We apply this ability even to ourselves. How we define ourselves is, in fact, one of our obsessions.

In terms of sci fi there are two forces that potentially imperil our comforting view of we humans: augmentation – either by prosthetic or genetic means. During the mid- to late 1980s the first of these defined a large part of cyberpunk fiction and gaming. Robots and cyborgs, however, are older concepts.

Hephaestus in Greek mythology and Ilmarinen of Finnish folklore are both said to have created artificial people. In the first case, these inventions were vessels for some of the aspects humans celebrate about themselves – most notably intellect and wisdom. The Scandinavian example presents a being deficient in what we seek from others. Most fictional androids fall into this latter category and that reflects our concern in defending our definition of being human.

There are nervous jokes made about potential robot overlords. Artificial intelligence is very rarely portrayed as anything but a cause for suspicion. Genetic engineering does not fare better and there are more examples from history to explain why. The idea of using an understanding of DNA to improve humanity is about a century old. Within a generation of the suggestion eugenics earned a bad name. It still summons overlords of a different sort and often paints the consequences as grim. Even basic cloning gives some qualms.

We want to be better creatures and we’re impatient with evolution. At the same time we’re afraid of what may result from taking shortcuts. Cyberpunk, the roleplaying game by R. Talsorian Games, warned of cyberpsychosis and marked the upper limit for augmentation by a loss of Humanity Points. Arthur C. Clarke warned us in 2001 (technically beginning in 1948 and revisited twenty years later) that AI can go dangerously, artificially insane far faster than any biological mind.

About two months ago, I asked a number of friends what aspects of animal DNA they would want woven into their own genetic code. In science fiction terms this is part of what’s known as wetware. The answers boil down to a few categories.

Improve what works well. A more efficient metabolism and better respiration system would be key examples. The most preferred feature from this set was the regeneration of lost limbs and damaged organs.

Increase what is not adequate. The wish to be stronger, faster, and more durable is not exclusive to professional athletes. Many answers here pertained to making our sense of sight far better than it is now, up to and including the ability to see infrared and ultraviolet light. None of the other four faculties called to mind by the word “sense” were among the answers although both proprioception and equilibrium were found to be a bit lacking.

Add cool new features. Without any apparent concern for sensory overload, some would like to sense electric fields, as can sharks and bees. The core of what it means to be a homing pigeon (and to any human who doesn’t want to rely on maps or GPS) depends on magnetoreception and this was also a desired acquisition.

Establish a better perimeter. The chameleon’s talent for camouflage, the signature of the electric eel, and all venomous/poisonous creatures were also envied along with claws and fangs.

It seems odd that no one mentioned immunity to toxins or disease. Also absent was mention of the immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii). And, while plants were left out of the initial question, no one went outside the envelope to suggest something from that kingdom.

Cyberpunk’s Chromebook series offered about 400 pages of comparable features and benefits from the technology-based potential sources of human modification.

RememberIn another century, we would probably recognize humans by our definition of the species and culture. That’s only five generations from now — the great great grandchildren of Jane and John Q. Public. People from one millennium past are, all things considered, not that different from us. Would cyber- and/or wetware actually change the contents or just the packing material?

Until innovation extends a lifespan along with the capacity to find an answer, I’ll offer this with hope: We may define ourselves as human so long as we remember to do so.


let’s make it a good one…

Astral is my first effort at a sci fi novel since high school. I don’t have any of the scripts or books I wrote then with one exception and while the retained short story is not The Eye of Argon it isn’t The Time Machine by any stretch.

As noted previously, my science fiction preference requires space travel. But what about the rest of the world(s) in which the story takes place? We’re quite unlikely to invent any propulsion system that could make reaching exoplanets feasible without seeing advances in other scientific and technological fields. By the time any visit to α Centauri is made, it seems probable that we might also have taken a significantly more active role in our own evolution.

Astral won’t be a big bucket into which I’ll pour all the science that appeals to me. However, the characters in the novel will consider many  machines yet to be dreamt of to be common, everyday things. Part of the world-building has to include a fairly thorough understanding of the societal repercussions of fictional innovations. What will it mean if we can travel faster than light and have mastered manipulation of the genome?

Opinion of human civilization 500 years ago can range widely. Should our emphasis be on the artistic achievements of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo or on the rise and impact of Imperialism? Is it more important to note the wars and plagues or the contributions of Martin Luther and Galileo Galilei? In 500 more years what will be the state of art and thought? Human nature may never change, despite our technological sophistication.

By the time audiences first took seats in the Globe Theatre in London and other people were excavating Pompeii near modern Naples, what humanity was and probably would always be was already on full display – fully developed. The fact that Shakespeare and Vesuvius still interest us may prove this point.

There will be more than a few exceptionally dark, perhaps ugly moments in Astral. Tonight I’ve been pondering which aspects of the characters who inhabit one human colony find beautiful and how they find it in their lives.

Any moment in time is both great and horrible if viewed from a wide enough point of view. What sort of future we create and whatever tales we tell about it depend – as it always has – on what perspective we adopt.

Imagine


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